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Area wildlife is equipped to handle rough winters

ALEXANDRIA, Minn. -- It can be hard to imagine anything surviving some of the elements that northern winters can throw at wildlife.

From 40-degree below zero wind chills to a 15-inch snow fall, winter can make things harder on species such as deer, turkeys and pheasants. But these animals are biologically wired to survive the harshest conditions that Mother Nature can unleash.

"They're a lot tougher, a lot stronger and a lot smarter than we give them credit for," Glenwood Area Assistant Wildlife Manager Rich Olsen said.

These animals are adept at getting out of tough weather conditions as best they can. Olsen said most of them will winter in areas with thick cover that help protect them from the elements. They also tend to stay close to food sources so they don't have to expend much energy searching for nutrients.

They don't need much. All these animals can survive on their own body weight for long periods of time. They are efficient when it comes to conserving that energy during the toughest portions of winter.

A research piece put together by the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Bureau of Wildlife Management in the late 1990s stated that fawn survival in the spring is more important to deer productivity than any other factor. Healthy does produce healthy fawns. That's why having smaller herds of stronger deer that can support themselves on a natural winter range can produce more deer for hunters than a larger herd of unhealthy deer.

"You need hard winters to knock back the populations to get the weak animals out, basically," Olsen said. "It's not politically correct to say, but it's true because you want the fittest animals out there that do best in the conditions that they're living in."

Nothing they haven't seen before

So far this year, animals have not been subjected to anything out of the ordinary for a Minnesota winter.

"Even though we've got some real cold, harsh conditions, they haven't been prolonged," Olsen said. "What really hurts survival through the winter is that late winter, early spring period when the animal has made it through the winter. It's looking for something green and you get hit by a big snow and real cold temperatures."

Olsen said he personally feels that the rain followed by freezing temperatures can cause more stress on the animal. It makes sense that being wet or damp can make it harder for them to bring their core body temperature back up. It can also make it more difficult for smaller birds to get at the food they need.

Before this past weekend's heavier snowfall, many central Minnesota fields had spots where the ground was exposed. That allowed animals to get at any grains that might have been left over from the fall harvest. The problem was the layer of ice.

"It's probably difficult to access food, especially if you're a small bird," Olsen said. "You're unable to scratch through that icy surface. Probably the one big negative is that ice crust. It's very difficult for pheasants to get to the dirt and find their seeds."

The question of feeding

Hearing about those struggles is what kicks in a person's desire to feed wildlife over the winter months. The thought seems to be that they need us after every big storm hits.

Dean Krebs, president of the Alexandria area Pheasants Forever chapter, said the group does provide corn for their members to put out and encourages feeding pheasants responsibly.

"It has to be done in the correct way," Krebs said. "We don't want to feed on a roadside. We want our food close to cover for pheasants. We don't want them traveling great distances trying to get to the food. That just opens them up to predation, and it takes way more energy to get there. Also, you don't want to stop. If you start, you got to be in it for the long haul."

Putting out food for turkeys and whitetail deer is a different story. Studies done on this show that it can do much more harm than good to the overall population.

Among the many concerns is that animals like deer and turkeys are at a greater risk for spreading disease and becoming victims of poaching or predators when in concentrated areas.

Roger Wittmer, chairman of the Pheasant Committee for the Alexandria area Viking Sportsmen's Club, says the group will put out feeders for pheasants if they feel the weather calls for that, but any feeders they do put out have deer guards around them to keep whitetails away.

One thing most people won't debate is that providing quality habitat is a better way to help ensure winter survival.

"I'd say that's 100 percent accurate," Wittmer said. "We're going to see that with the CRP going out and going back into field production. The birds are losing their habitat and cover. Without that to help them get out of the weather, they just burn up that much more energy."

Maybe the greatest helping hand we can offer to many area wildlife species during winter months is to simply leave them alone. That might sound harsh, but these animals are tough, probably a lot tougher than we give them credit for.